You might think an innocent bet at the casino is harmless, and most of the time it is. But, like anything that can be addictive (think social media, alcohol and drugs), it doesn’t take much to tip you over the edge into dangerous territory.

Problem gambling is an issue in Australia. A 2015 study by the Federal Government estimated that there were 6.8 million Australians who fell within the “problem gamblers” category. But the figures can be even worse among international students: one recent study from the University of Tasmania (UTAS), commissioned by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, found that international students are twice as likely to be problem gamblers than domestic students, and that male students are even more at risk.

According to the federal report, the most common form of gambling in Australia (in 2015) was lottery participation (76 per cent), instant scratch tickets, known as “scratchies” in Australia (22 per cent), and electronic gaming machines, also known as “pokies” (21 per cent). Less common, but still utilised, was racing (14 per cent), sports betting (8 per cent), keno (8 per cent), casino table games (3 per cent), bingo (3 per cent), and poker (2 per cent). For international students, the most common form of gambling was casino tables, according to the UTAS report.

Experts suggest that gambling rates could be higher in international students because such entertainment might be banned in their home country, or advertising and accessibility may be more widespread in Australia. There is also the suggestion that gambling provides an escape from the stresses of living and studying in a new country.

The implications of gambling

Rosie Baxendale, a nurse for NSW Health, told Insider Guides that it was common for people to come into the hospital emergency room with health issues related to prolonged gambling sessions. Quite often, they are international students.

She says it’s most common to find they’ve fainted from dehydration or have experienced a seizure due to too much screen time, or being prone to seizures but not taking their medication as they’re too consumed with gambling.

“We’ll have patients coming in from the casino every week, and to hazard a guess I’d say international students with health issues related to gambling come in around once per month,” she says.

“People can be sitting [at the pokies] for hours, they just don’t know how to stop. I’ve heard from colleagues that they’ve even seen people who’ve self catheterised so they don’t have to get up to go to the toilet.

“Most of the time when we have a patient who’s been out of it, when they come to all they want to do is go back to the casino. They don’t want follow-up tests. They don’t want to wait for their blood results. They just want to get discharged as quickly as possible.”

Gambling can also cost a lot of money, and often sends people into serious debt. That same report by UTAS found that international students were spending up to $3000 per week on gambling. If you want to look at how much gambling is costing you, or someone you know, you can use this online calculator tool developed by the NSW Office of Responsible Gambling. Punching gambling data into this calculator could give the user a bit of a rude shock, but that’s the whole point. It forces users to take a long-term view of the situation.

What to look out for

If you’re worried about a friend who you think might be falling victim to the addictiveness of gambling, or you’re even concerned about your own addiction, there are certain things you should be looking out for.

A spokesperson for the NSW Office of Responsible Gambling told Insider Guides some of the telltale signs of a problem gambler:

  • Decline in health – poorer hygiene practices, being easily irritated or frustrated;
  • Increased substance use and/or smoking habits;
  • Change in education/employment status – disengagement with studies, withdrawal from units of study, failing to show up at work or poor performance at work;
  • Social withdrawal – distancing from family/friends, unwillingness to participate in social events, leaving events early; and
  • Financial stress – financial debt, sacrificing expenses on personal items or household necessities.

“If your friend is displaying any of these signs, create a safe space to talk to them about their gambling problem,” they say. “You may find it helpful to initiate conversations about gambling in a more general sense, or to leave brochures about gambling treatment in their view.”

There are also certain behaviours and situations that can turn someone from an occasional gambler, into someone who is at risk of experiencing serious health and financial issues as a result of long-term gambling. The NSW Office of Responsible Gambling spokesperson says a lack of education around the addictive nature of gambling, or winning a large sum of money early on, are both high-risk situations.

They also cite pre-existing mental health conditions (anxiety, depression, elevated stress) or substance abuse issues as potential catalysts for problem gambling.

How to get help

Whether you’re seeking help for yourself or you’re worried about a friend, it’s important to remember that there’s so much support on offer to you.

Here are the NSW Office of Responsible Gambling’s top 10 tips for those who feel they might have a problem:

  •  Have a game plan – set a maximum gambling limit before you start and stick to it.
  •  Leave your debit and credit cards at home and only take with you the amount of cash you can afford to spend.
  •  Set an alarm on your phone to limit the time you spend gambling.
  •  Track your betting and keep a record of how much time you spend gambling each week.
  •  Avoid chasing your losses. Chances are you’ll just lose more.
  • Have someone in your life who you can talk to openly about gambling.
  • Take up a new hobby, or get back into an activity you used to enjoy.
  • Don’t gamble to impress or challenge other people.
  • Avoid gambling with people who are big spenders.
  • Consider exercising your right to exclude yourself from any gaming venues if you want to cut down, have a break or quit gambling. Gambling counsellors can assist you through this process.

The following organisations can also assist with problem gambling. Many state bodies offer multilingual support, but if you need translation help when calling a hotline or booking or attending an appointment, you can contact TIS National.

Chinese-speaking: Chinese Gambling Concern Inc.

NSW: Gambling Help NSW

VIC: Gambler’s Help

ACT: ACT Gambling Counselling and Support Service

SA: Problem Gambling Help SA

QLD: Gamblinghelp

WA: Gambling Help WA

NT: Amity Community Services

TAS: Gamblers Help